A nuclear Iran is still a problem

Those who view Iran as a similar case to Iraq are seriously misguided.

Americans weary of war were elated when the intelligence community released their findings that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Immediately, the heat was laid down on President George W. Bush and his bellicose rhetoric. But what, did the National Intelligence Estimate prove? Moreover, what has it succeeded in doing?

First, it proves that Iran was indeed working toward nuclear weapons. While the NIE states that it has high confidence weapons development was ceased, it is less confident it has not been restarted. Furthermore, it also states that it is fully within Iran’s capability to build a bomb. A footnote often overlooked in the very first line is that the Iranian government has merely stopped research on designing nuclear-capable warheads. The difficulty in nuclear weaponry lies not in the detonator, but in enriching the fuel, which is exactly what Iran is doing (as well as working on ballistic missiles).

The NIE reasserted two things: Iran still has the capability to produce a nuke in the next decade, and that America is ever surer that a weapon is a priority. Those who see Iran as merely another example of Bush warmongering may want to actually take the time to read the estimate. In point of fact, David Kay, a former weapons inspector, recently said that the report made “conflicting claims,” and that the document was not as clear as it should be in stating that the nuclear program had been stopped, rather that fact was “buried” in the text.

Second, Iran still has much to answer for. Iranian officials beamed of their vindication when the NIE was released. Think again. Iran’s activities are a flagrant violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory. It is hard not to notice that the civilian application guise is widely disbelieved internationally. Iran’s only fully functioning reactor in Bushehr is supplied with Russian-made nuclear fuel. So why is it necessary for the centrifuges, used to enrich uranium, to be so active at Iran’s facility at Natanz? Over and above that, the new heavy-water reactor at Arak, designated as a research facility, is too large to be such and too small for generating electricity. As it happens, a heavy-water reactor is just the thing for making weapons-grade plutonium. For the amount of nuclear fuel being developed by Iran, it lacks the necessary energy generating reactors to use it.

Dubious still are the connections that Iran has admitted to having with the nuclear black market, run by the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. It is implausible that a nation seeking legitimate uses of nuclear power would do so through illegitimate means. Aside from the shady acquisition of centrifuges, documents have been turned over that show how to construct hemispherical uranium cores; the only application such a thing has is in weaponry.

Third, the NIE served to utterly dismantle the diplomacy that has been going on for five years. The United States is effectively hamstrung. Military action would, still, be improper and unrealistic given commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1981 Israeli warplanes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear testing reactor in a preemptive strike. As a result, Iraqi nuclear development went to ground, only discovered following the first Gulf War. Israel (and many European nations) still is not convinced that Iran is innocent. The danger now lies in Israel’s motivation to attempt a similar strike on Iran – as some in the Israeli government have suggested – which would drive an already underground Iranian program even deeper.

Now the diplomatic straits are muddied. Neither Russia nor China believes Iran’s peaceful intentions, but nor do they see any immediate danger.

It will not matter if a Democratic president is elected this fall. Even if they were willing to negotiate with Iran without pre-conditions (ceased enrichment), the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, the true ruler of Iran, has said that there will be no relations with the United States. Precisely why international involvement is necessary. But such coordination is impossible without U.S. backing.

The fourth outcome of the NIE may be the most troubling, and that is the willingness of the anti-Bush crowed to uphold double standards. Many are all too quick to cite international law and flawed intelligence as a means for discrediting the president over Iraq. True enough, and deservedly so. But how, then, is it rational to ignore Iran’s flouting of international law and at the same time laud the analysis of the same agency that brought you the Iraq war? Intelligence is not yet perfect, but apparently some believe they actually can have their cake and eat it too. Such shameless political posturing is a poor example of responsible government. A situation involving such a menacing factor as nuclear proliferation should not be subject to petty partisan feuding. Understandably, many desire to wash our hands of Iraq. But those who view Iran as a similar case are seriously misguided. Iran may well win this fight, not because it is in the right, but because domestic bickering impeded proper action by the United States.

Iranian elections loom, and many disapprove of the consequences drawn by the recalcitrance that President Ahmadinejad has showed; he and his supporters stand to lose their power. Sanctions have done well in strangling the economy, and pressure should be maintained until Iran comes clean. A recent editorial in The Economist newspaper suggests that since diplomacy is now impossible, the best possible route to take is to embarrass the ruling Iranian government out of power by exposing its ineptitude to its own people. Your correspondent echoes that call. The danger in that approach is potentially validating the views of an otherwise incompetent President George W. Bush and his administration. So be it.

Many cite that Iran has legitimate concerns for nuclear energy. Fine. But that does not excuse the untrustworthy manner in which it has pursued it. Analysts say that Iran’s tepid economy would benefit, free from the price of oil. Absurd. Nuclear energy would do nothing about the economy unless the highly illiberal government policies were dramatically reformed. The rolling blackouts and fuel shortages are endemic of price fixing and unwise subsidies. To boot, enriching uranium for nonexistent reactors is fiscally ridiculous, especially considering Iran has no indigenous supply of the raw stuff.

Shahram Chubin, of the Geneva Center for Security Policy, wrote that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have as much to do with domestic pride as with defense and deterrence. Poor excuse for inciting a nuclear arms race in one of the worlds most fractious neighborhoods. Alas, the damage may already be done.

Nuclear energy is the best source of alternative energy, and all deserve to enjoy its benefits. But with it comes great responsibility. Until Iran demonstrates some, it deserves nothing.

St. James’ Street welcomes comments at [email protected]